A Little Song and Dance

I often forget that in 2001 I worked at Atlantic Records. It was such a bizarre position that, every day I was there, I wasn’t sure I still worked there. Now, almost twenty years later, I’m not sure I ever actually quit, like maybe I could just show up tomorrow and everyone would shrug and go on with their business. I don’t think I even had a job title. I would say that I was excited to work at Atlantic because, as a longtime fan of Atlantic R&B, it gave me a chance to be part of a recording heritage that included Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, and Ray Charles. It’s the label that released Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly,” and goddamn that is a great song. Mostly though, I had been unemployed for several months and was just happy to have a job.

It turns out Atlantic in the year 2001 had a slightly different roster of artists than the ones with which I was familiar.

My first day I met with someone who was the head of something. She was a nice, efficient, business-like professional; a slightly older British woman who dressed smartly and conservatively and who overlooked the fact that, at 29 years old and ostensibly a professional myself, I was still dressing the casual slob. I’m not 100% certain who she was or what she was in charge of, but I assume I fell under her department since she called me into her office for a “getting to know you” session. And maybe her name was on my paycheck? When asked if I was familiar with any Atlantic artists, I rattled off the list of soul and R&B greats that formed a good portion of my listening.

“Are you,” she asked, struggling for the polite way to say it, “familiar with any of our more current artists?”

I confessed that, having spent the 1990s immersed in punk rock, I had no idea who was on the Atlantic roster and probably wouldn’t recognize the names if they were relayed to me. She assured me that was OK, but that I should get up to speed if I was going to be working with these folks. Egos, you know. No artist wants to work with a guy whose first words are, “Hi, I’ve never heard of you.” She then extracted a box of CDs from her desk and issued them to me. “Oh,” she said in an upper class accent as she handed a disc to me, “this one will be good for you.” Which is how I came to own a Trick Daddy album.

I was part of a fledgling website team at a time when having a website was something companies had decided they needed to do but didn’t exactly know how to go about it or what to do with one when they had it. A former colleague was their digital art director and brought me on to do writing, website design and building, and whatever other tasks came up since, of the six people on the team, only she and I had any experience making websites. To give an idea of the tech-forward set-up with which we worked: among my sundry chores was creating mp3 versions of songs to post on artist sub-sites. However, I was forbidden from installing any sort of CD-ripping software, which would have made creating a good mp3 version a matter of seconds (well, a minute probably, back then). I was allowed to install Audacity (or something like it) but I was not allowed to “record directly from any release.” While not exactly new to the scene in 2001, mp3s were only just beginning to be embraced…skeptically…by labels. There was no Amazon Music, and iTunes was like two weeks old. After a bit of go-around, it was determined that the most logical thing to do was too put a mic connected to a computer set to record next to the speakers of another computer set to play, then ask everyone to get real quiet while I old-schooled it.

I didn’t have a permanent desk. Instead, I drifted from station to station depending on who was out on vacation. That meant that on any given week I’d have a completely different set-up and would have to request everything I needed be installed all over again on the new machine (we were not allowed to install any software ourselves) — which is a big part of the reason why, every day, I wondered if I actually worked there. Had I made a mistake, and everyone was just too embarrassed to tell me? I was assured I worked there and that assignments would be coming my way. Mostly I sat there collecting a paycheck. Because I couldn’t play CDs on the computer (they wouldn’t let me install Winamp), all I had to listen to was whatever was being piped into the room by someone who was allowed to play CDs (she had a Sony Discman plugged into a speaker). That “whatever” was, for weeks, Alicia Keys’ “A Woman’s Worth” on repeat. Not the whole Songs in A Minor album; just that one song, with my office-mate warbling it with as much passion as lack of singing talent. I have immense respect for Alicia Keys and will fire up “Karma” when it’s called for (which is frequently), but for a while, the mere thought of Alicia Keys sent me into shivers.

When I did actually get an assignment (other than the 2001-version of holding a tape recorder up to a radio to record a song), it was usually as interesting as it was ridiculous. When it was discovered that I was handy with words and fairly adaptable in my voice, I was taken off the design team and put “on content,” my primary task being to compose online tour diaries for various Atlantic artists. For a brief, glorious period, no joke, I was Lil’ Kim (at least online; I used to get weekly bullet points from one of her personal assistants, and I had to convert those into a couple of paragraphs). To this day, I second guess the placement of the apostrophe in her name, but who am I to tell Lil’ Kim what to do? I figured, even though she probably never read what I was writing, she would find out if one of her tour diary entries announced “I am moving the apostrophe; I am now Li’l Kim.” I also posted tour diary entries for Ian Astbury, lead singer for the Cult, but he wrote those himself. They were hilariously self-aggrandizing and rock starrish, which I guess I should have expected. When a band is a little off the beaten path, you sometimes assume they’re not totally full of themselves.

My most involved assignments were with newly signed up-and-comers, usually part of the Lava imprint, which was actually a good deal of fun. Lava handled a lot of alt-rock bands, but I still ended up on hip-hop most of the time. Some were egomaniacs, some were genuine talents, and a few were both. I’ve never minded an ego if you can back it up and as long as it’s not wielded as a weapon to degrade others. I was usually tasked with creating and building promotional sites for them, something within the Atlantic umbrella but with a unique design. Some artists were deeply involved in the process; others had no idea what a website even was. I can’t remember most of the artists with whom I worked, but I bet they can’t remember me either, so fair’s fair. I spent time at the Lyricist Lounge on the Lower East Side with a hip-hop group called Little T and One Track Mike. They were kind of a goofball act but were good dudes to work with, not that interested at the time in the web but interested in putting something cool out there regardless. And the rapper, Little T, was into painting and sketches, so we had a lot of art with which to work and integrate into the site design. Their single “Shaniqua” was gaining some traction, and we were working on the site in support of it and their first album, Fome Is Dape, which was released in August 2001 and had a big party planned for its release on September 11. That didn’t happen. The site we designed together looked pretty good, though. I was into what a former art director boss of mine once described as “Swiss design” — big bold fonts and judicious use of red, grey, black, and white. I don’t think the site ever actually launched.

I didn’t get to write anything about Otis Redding. Aretha Franklin didn’t need a website. I didn’t get to go to any posh industry parties, though Lyricist Lounge was all right and probably better suited to my temperament and wardrobe at the time. I turned that Alicia Keys fan on to Grand Royal magazine. I didn’t meet Lil’ Kim. And at some point, I just sort of stopped working there. I was never officially let go, as far I can remember. I think maybe everyone who had been on vacation when I started eventually came back, and there was just nowhere for me to sit anymore, so I would show up, drift around, and then leave, until eventually, that seemed like a hassle, even if it meant an easy paycheck. Things trailed off, and I doubt anyone noticed I was no longer in the office, since most of them didn’t know my name and, to be fair, I didn’t know theirs. It was such a bizarre, ephemeral experience that it sometimes seems like a dream. I didn’t really work at Atlantic Records, did I? Did an old British woman in Brooks Brothers clothing really lecture me on early 2000s hip hop? But I guess it did happened, because every now and then that goddamn Trick Daddy CD will show up even though I could swear I threw it out years ago.

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